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Lightning seeks protection

David Koci is not afraid of anyone.

The Lightning left wing has fought some of the toughest guys in the NHL, including the Wild's Derek Boogaard, from whom he took a close decision.

That is why coach Barry Melrose said it is not a lock that Koci, 6 feet 6, 238 pounds and with what seems a perpetually clenched fist, will begin the season with AHL Norfolk, as expected.

"One thing I've made very clear to my stars is they will always be protected, and that's going to happen here," Melrose said. "As long as I'm the coach here, you will never see one of our stars taken advantage of.

"So don't count on him starting in the minors."

There has been much speculation about how the team will handle its enforcer duties after Andre Roy's free agent exit.

There is plenty of toughness. Nick Tarnasky, Chris Gratton, Evgeny Artyukhin, Ryan Malone and Vinny Lecavalier can take and give a good punch. But when it comes to a true heavyweight to deal with toughies such as Boogaard, Jared Boll, Riley Cote, George Parros and Colton Orr, among others, Tampa Bay's projected roster seems without room.

Hockey operations chief Brian Lawton said if that is how it plays out, so be it because Tampa Bay is "an enormous club."

Average size among its projected top 13 forwards: 6-2, 210, biggest in the league, which is why Lawton reiterated that perhaps not having a true enforcer, "I have no concern with that. … Team toughness is the greatest responsibility and bonding a team can do. We have a group of guys that I can tell already will use this to bring themselves together."

Besides, he added, "Tell me who Detroit's heavyweight is. Tell me who their middleweight is. They do it with more puck possession and skill. We'd like to follow that model. But we'd also like to back that up with size, and we feel that we have that."

In Koci, 27, the Lightning has a work in progress. He needs to be more to earn a roster spot.

The Prague native, who signed a one-year, two-way contract, has zero points, 15 fights and 156 penalty minutes in 27 career games the past two seasons with the Blackhawks and admitted his skating needs work.

"If you can skate, you can play the game defensively and on the forecheck," he said. "I've worked on it all summer. I'm excited. You have goals and dreams. It will be a challenge, and it will be fun."

It would be a nice story if Koci plays during the Lightning's season-opening games against the Rangers in Prague. But Melrose said the big man will get no special consideration because of his Czech roots.

"Of course not," Melrose said, but added, "David Koci is an ingredient in the team. He is part of the puzzle. His toughness is certainly unique. There is no other player like him on our team, so that's something he has going for him."

Koci, who has 993 penalty minutes in 238 career AHL games, including 44 last season with Norfolk, said he wants only "a fair chance to make the team.

"I know Tampa wants guys with passion," he added.

"I'm excited. It's going to be a challenge."

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@sptimes.com.

Protection plan

Lightning enforcers (not just willing fighters) with their Tampa Bay career numbers:

Player Seasons Games G A PTS PIM

Andre Roy 2001-04, 2006-08 218 17 14 31 484

Enrico Ciccone 1993-96, 1997-99 135 5 9 14 604

Rudy Poeschek 1993-97 213 5 16 21 418

Lightning seeks protection 08/30/08 [Last modified: Thursday, September 4, 2008 7:41am]

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